A story that made a big impression on me was "Little Red Riding Hood." I was ten and my mother said to me, "Who's the main character in the story?"
I thought for a moment, and said, "Red Riding Hood."
"The story is called that," I said. "Little Red Riding Hood."
"You think so, do you?" my mother said. "I think it's misleading. She's not in the story very much. What about the Wolf? Why don't you take a look at the story from the Wolf's point of view? Ask yourself how the Wolf feels about all this?"
"Okay, but why should we care about the Wolf? All he wants to do is have Red for dinner."
Not true, I would learn once I got thinking about it.
Here is what my mother explained to me about the fairytale, and what I added to it in the years to come.
We have a Wolf, a sad guy who lives in the woods, alone and hungry. One night, through the trees, he sees a light.
He discovers a farmhouse inhabited by a Grandma. The Wolf sneaks a closer look. It's homey in there, with a fire. The Grandma seems very nice. The Wolf needs companionship, a meal; he's desolate.
The next day he picks flowers and puts them on the back porch. The Grandma finds them and that night she puts out a dish of something.
The Wolf wolfs it down and leaves more flowers, or something he's carved out of wood. And so on. One night as the Wolf is eating the food the Grandma has left for him, she appears and invites the Wolf in to eat his meal at a proper table.
Thus begins the best relationship the Wolf has ever had, and probably the best relationship Grandma has had. She likes this Wolf, and she's also in need of companionship.
A bargain is struck. In return for being fed and housed, the Wolf agrees to do handy work around the house.
This goes on for a few weeks. The Wolf has never been happier. Finally, after all his roaming around, he's found a home, and a sweet lovely person with whom to while away the evening hours.
One day the Old Lady asks the Wolf to stay in the woods, just for a few hours. Her granddaughter is visiting and the girl wouldn't understand the nature of their friendship.
The Wolf says sure. That day, the Wolf, now hiding in the forest, positions himself to see the visitor.
Ohmygoodness! When he gets a look at Red Riding Hood his heart stops. He can barely control his sudden and overwhelming love for this girl. He hyperventilates, he sweats, his heart pounds.
Red leaves. The Wolf returns and asks Grandma questions about her, but not too many because the Wolf is no fool. If Grandma ever realized how smitten he was with her granddaughter, she would kick him out.
So now the Wolf has another thing to be grateful for - anticipating Red's next visit.
But gratitude is not what he's feeling. It's more like obsession. When she visits again, he hides and watches. Later, when he returns to the house, Grandma asks him what the matter is. He says he must have come down with something; maybe he caught cold in the woods.
Time goes on and Red visits every few weeks. Grandma starts to notice the Wolf's erratic behavior before and after her visits.
Grandma is worried.
On the most recent visit, she catches the Wolf peeking through the window at Red.
Now Grandma has to do something. The Wolf's behavior is unacceptable. As much as Grandma likes the Wolf, she is now afraid for her granddaughter's safety.
She tells the Wolf he has to go.
Now the Wolf's obsession for Red enters the hot zone. He cannot stand the idea of not seeing her, or the idea that he will be thrown out of his happy home. Obsession turns to something else.
It turns to murder.
The poor Wolf who had everything - a friend, a place to live happily, food on the table, some joy - has been destroyed by his obsession for a girl.
So what do we have here? "Little Red Riding Hood" from the point of view of this disturbed Wolf gives me a greater understanding of the story and its complexities, along with the role of the villain, whose job it is to drive the story toward catastrophe.
My mother planted an idea in my head about the Wolf. I have watched her lesson grow and take shape in my work.
Choosing the Right Main Character
Over the years, using this story as an example, I started to look at other stories from all the characters' points of view. One thing that occurred to me was that I had better pay attention to the character through whom the story should be told. Which characters drive the story and which are driven by it?
When I started to write my own stories, I'd stepped back to see the stories from the points of view of all the major characters. Often I realized that the main character I had originally chosen was not the right one after all, but another character, through whose eyes the story became much more interesting.
I sometimes changed genders to see what that would do. As a result I realized that making the main character a female instead of a male created all sorts of story opportunities.
I began to ask myself which character made the greatest change in the story. This character, it turned out, usually had more at stake, more to win and/or lose.
Often the story belongs to another of your characters. Unless you take a good hard look around the cast to see which one is the most compelling, you may never choose the right lead. At the beginning of your story you may have chosen the character you identified with most, rather than the character through whose eyes the more dramatic version of the story should be told. Give the story to the character that changes the most, who is most affected by the story
What if Robert Towne, writer of Chinatown
, had decided to make this a movie about the incestuous relationship between John Huston and Faye Dunaway, instead of focusing on Jack Nicholson? Believe me, he might have. The Huston/Dunaway subplot is incestuous, dark and daring. In this scenario the Nicholson character might have been just a footnote.
Writers have committed this error in judgment and later wondered why they had to put the brakes on the story because it wasn't going anywhere. Those scripts end up in a drawer somewhere, all because the writer failed to look around the cast to see if a more dynamic character has been hiding.
In the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There
, what if the story were taken away from the expressionless Billy Bob Thornton character and given to the actor who walked away with the picture, the high-powered lawyer, played by Tony Shalhoub, who might have fallen into this weird world and changed radically, but didn't? The Coen brothers had their main character, the quiet man with a deeply troubled inner life that crept out at crucial times during the story to shock and surprise.
Take your story or script and climb behind the eyes of the two or three main characters. See the story as they do. Write it down in one page for each character.
Ask these questions:
- Who changes the most?
- How do these changes significantly alter the story from one character to another?
Once you determine who the main character is, build him into a force of nature that, let's say, Russell Crowe is destined to play. Start thinking like that. Start thinking that Russell Crowe will play this part.
The very idea that you're aiming that high will force you to do nothing less than your A-list work. Russell Crowe would settle for nothing less than A-list work. Picture him, put his image up above your machine. Become obsessed with fashioning this character for him. And believe that he is waiting for this masterpiece. You will soon come to believe that this work you're doing is your very best ever, and it is. Suspend your disbelief and the work you produce will outdistance anything you've done before.
If the main character has a strong goal, then why not his creator, you, the writer? Call it unwavering focus, call it fantasy, call it whatever you wish. Just do it.
Excerpted from Christopher Keane's new screenwriting book: ROMANCING THE A-LIST: Writing the Script the Big Stars Want to Make